Philip Hensher

Romance and rejection

The five women Lyndall Gordon chooses led relatively easy lives compared to many struggling geniuses one could name

Romance and rejection
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Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World

Lyndall Gordon

Virago, pp. 338, £

‘Outsider’ ought to be an important word. To attach it to someone, particularly a writer, is to suggest that their helpless circumstances have condemned them to struggle and neglect. It is up to us — posterity — to look beyond the writers who had social advantages in the year 1880, say, and find those who wrote best.

One group that has been rewardingly elevated in recent years has been women. Although Lyndall Gordon has not tried to unearth anyone very out of the way, she has written about five writers who showed unusual courage and boldness, often behaving unconventionally. The least familiar of her subjects, Olive Schreiner, was an admirable woman, who wanted to be a doctor, and wrote a bestselling and rather scandalous novel of South African life before devoting herself to pro-Republican Boer causes. Others were also independent-minded trailblazers. But were they ‘outsiders’?

In the field of art, ‘outsider’ means something specific. It is the usual translation since the early 1970s of Dubuffet’s notion of art brut or ‘raw art’: the art produced by figures outside the usual structures of training, indoctrination, production and distribution. The wonderful Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne shows the range: art produced by prisoners, mental patients, the impoverished and the isolated, from the East End seamstress Madge Gill to the reclusive Chicago caretaker Henry Darger.

But what is an outsider writer? There was no specific training to be a writer until very recently, and it would be absurd to regard anyone now who hasn’t got a creative writing degree as an outsider. In my view, given the implications for where attention by readers should be focussed, and where support and active inquiry might still be necessary, writers to be treated as outsiders should be demonstrably disadvantaged economically as well as culturally, through circumstances they can do nothing about.

In current studies, many writers with a good claim to exist outside privilege are totally neglected. Everyone ought to know the difficulties that a working-class writer, or any writer without independent means, will have in getting started. There are very few institutions devoted to the study of working-class culture, apart from an excellent library in Manchester. Studies of it are rare. Jonathan Rose’s superb The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) is still the best. Writing by immigrants has barely been surveyed; and from Israel Zangwill (the London-born son of 19th-century Jewish immigrants) to the Windrush generation’s Samuel Selvon, they remain outsiders to our notion of culture. Gay and lesbian writers go back centuries, but the history of their writing remains largely unwritten. These seem to me to be the writers from the outside with a strong claim to be revalued.

The nature of exclusion was not a monolithic one; disadvantages could be inconvenient, or utterly prohibitive. Just how problematic the question of the ‘outsider’ author has become was brought home to me last year when I edited an anthology of British short stories and took care to include writers from unusual backgrounds. It was rather easier in the past for a recent immigrant, an impoverished working-class writer or a sexual outlaw to persuade a magazine to print a short story than to get a publisher to take a novel.

When the anthology came out, I was criticised by a well-known editor for not managing to find an equal number of male and female writers. (In an anthology stretching back to 1700, it could not have been done without compromising the quality.) The editor who complained, amusingly, had ancestors who were ennobled in the 16th century. It seems harmless for such people to present themselves as outsiders in literature, but the net result is to exclude genuinely disadvantaged writers from consideration. In my view, it is harder than ever for working-class writers of either sex, or black or Asian writers without privileged backgrounds, to gain a hearing.

And while I applaud the rediscovery of female writers from the past, it’s important not to conflate ‘women writers’ with ‘outsider writers’. Some were outsiders in society, and some were not. Many outsider writers were men; others were not. Oppression and rejection were not forces affecting one sex equally, and nobody else.

Lyndall Gordon would have benefited from thinking about what social exclusion really means. She takes her cue from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Three Guineas’, which envisages a secret society of outsiders, consisting of what Woolf calls ‘the daughters of educated men’. This definition, which permitted a Lady Rhondda to describe herself as an outsider, raised eyebrows even in 1938.

In what sense was Woolf an outsider? Her family was well-connected, with Thackeray, Julia Margaret Cameron and a Duchess of Bedford close in the family tree. Her biographer tells us that she was ‘never poor’, and after 1926 her independent income was substantial. ‘Three Guineas’ has hardly anything to say about the daughters (or indeed the sons) of uneducated men. About non-Europeans (of whom she must have heard a good deal from Leonard), she only envisages that the daughters of educated men will be able to ‘check’ the ‘testimony of the ruled’. The wrongs she lists were certainly real, and damaging to society, but there were classes of people with a much better claim to be outsiders than Virginia Woolf.

Gordon also discusses Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë and George Eliot, as well as Olive Schreiner, as I have mentioned — all well known writers, whose biographies are regularly re-done. Shelley came from a privileged background, and even Eliot had a private income of £200 a year. What interests Gordon, and what draws her to describe these writers as outsiders, is largely their romantic and sexual history. Shelley and Eliot left England with men they were not married to, and were pilloried for it. I would have liked more about other aspects of exclusion: Shelley’s background in extreme radical politics, and Eliot’s nonconformist religious convictions. By contrast, Gordon makes much of the fact that Woolf was laughed at in the street by the lower orders — hardly evidence of social exclusion.

There are some errors. Rhodes did not ‘take over’ De Beers; he founded it. Schreiner’s father’s name, Gottlob, doesn’t mean ‘Lover of God’. George Smith paid Eliot £10,000, not £7,000 for Romola. It is not correct to say that ‘Virginia Woolf’s fame took off 30 years after her death’. She could hardly have been more famous in her lifetime. Breastfeeding was not ‘an unfashionable practice’ in Mary Wollstonecraft’s time — Georgiana Devonshire had promoted it. It’s grotesque, in connection with Charles and Mary Lamb, to write with a sneer: ‘The brother sorrowfully leading his sister to an asylum was a familiar sight in London.’ Charles Lamb saved his sister from incarceration after she murdered her mother.

Gordon’s way with evidence in general is a little wilful. I don’t know why it’s necessary to insist that George Eliot’s

portraits are not plain. They show a long sensitive face with abundant brown locks folded inwards towards her cheeks. Her lips are full, and unthreatening eyes look steadily at you. There’s no assertive charm, no performance, no attempt at an image: only the charm of discernment.

Surely the point is that it doesn’t matter whether or not George Eliot was plain. Judging by the famous 1858 photograph, in which Eliot has been persuaded to look upwards like Princess Diana with a coy finger to her cheek, Gordon’s description of her appearance is about as inaccurate as can be imagined.

There are some points of interest in the book, especially concerning Olive Schreiner, describing the form of her anti-imperialism. But Gordon would have done better to have written about true outsiders, such as the 18th-century poet Mary Leapor; Charlotte Mew; Amy Levy; or the novelist Margaret Oliphant, rather sneered at in ‘Three Guineas’, who really did have to struggle to be heard. Dorothy Edwards is also a good subject: she committed suicide when Woolf’s Bloomsbury friends decided she was too common to go on sponsoring.

Better still would have been a book more broadly about outsiders, including Stephen Duck, John Clare, Edward Carpenter and Israel Zangwill. Virginia Woolf wouldn’t have stood a chance of enduring the life John Clare led. Beyond that, we have to acknowledge an army of those whom Gray called ‘mute inglorious Miltons’, whom no scholarship can reach and whose names are lost beyond recall.